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Pixel 3A: I 'dumbed' down my phone and didn't last 24 hours

"Lovie Ramsay" (2020-03-15)

Plain waffles and lemonid="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> The envelope for the Pixel 3A.

Angela Lang/CNET As I finished cutting and gluing the Envelope together to eventually encase my Pixel 3A, I was hopeful. On top of being an average phone user, I've been reviewing and reporting on phones for years. To spend time with phones and be paid for it, then turn around and do the exact opposite, would be new for me, and I was amused to embark on it.

From electronic lock boxes to minimalist phones, the lengths people go -- or rather, the lengths companies hope people go -- to detox from their phones have always intrigued me. On one hand, these intentions come from a good place; we could all stand to spend less time on our phones. But the marketing behind these solutions often carries a whiff of privilege. After all, the customers they want to attract who are "overwhelmed" by their phones are also more likely to be able to afford time away from it; they'd have the means to buy that fancy lock box or a secondary phone whose main selling point is that it does nothing.

So when Experiments with Google, Google's collection of outside developer projects, showcased in January a low-tech project called Envelope that aims to help users decrease phone usage by way of a physical barrier, I was even more curious. It required an app (of course), but also just a pair of scissors, some glue and a paper print-out. It was created by London-based design studio Special Projects, and it challenged users to temporarily seal away their phones in a paper envelope and, you know, live life or whatever.

The concept essentially dumbs down a phone (in this case, it only works with the Pixel 3A, a slightly less-featured and cheaper version of the Pixel 3, something Google is rumored to continue with the Pixel 4A in 2020), so that it only makes and receives calls and tells time. Outside of that, a 0.1mm sheet of paper would lie between me and messaging, Chrome, YouTube, Maps, a camera, Instagram and everything else I love my phone for. 

I planned to last at least 24 hours, with the aim to limit my phone use entirely. But as I later realized, I was regrettably underprepared and had to lower my ambitions quickly.

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Envelope works by replacing the Pixel 3A's default phone call app with its own, one that is plain and stark, in black and white. After swiping through a start-up guide, the app gave me 10 seconds to slide my Pixel 3A in my fully assembled Envelope. 

On Monday, Jan 28 at 2:30 p.m., I sealed the Pixel 3A. Once inside, I only had access to the standard four-row dialer, a call button, and a button for the clock. When I needed to dial a number, the call button turned green and then switched to red when a call was active. To tell the time, the numbers on the dialer lit up each digit of the time sequentially, while a calm four-note melody played. Watching the time flash through the paper like this unexpectedly became my favorite part of the app.

Because my friends and I mostly chat through Facebook Messenger and hardly anyone calls one another these days, I easily lasted through the workday, checking messages and listening to music on my computer. Back at home, I assumed things would be as effortless. Barring any fantastical event that would warrant me ripping the Envelope open to take a photo, I can easily leave my phone in my bedroom for hours while off cooking, eating and watching Netflix in another room. The only temptation I could imagine was checking Twitter before bed, but that would be easy enough to resist for one night. 

Later in the evening though, I was invited to dinner last-minute and needed driving directions to a friend's house. In the end, it wasn't any addiction to Twitter or Instagram that did me in, but Google Maps. And because I didn't want to look up and down at hand-written directions at night while driving, I felt comfortable to terminate my experiment then and there at 7:30 p.m.